EXCLUSIVE: Retired Miami City Ballet Principal Ballerina-Turned-Teacher Patricia Delgado Talks Sugar Plum Fairy and Dancing in Nutcracker at The Straz

Lauded principal ballerina Patricia Delgado retired from Miami City Ballet this year after an extraordinary career with the company that began when she was 16 years old. An exquisite technician and breathtaking artist, Delgado gave soul to MCB, and arrived at The Straz last summer as a guest artist (along with Balanchine great Edward Villella) for the NGB summer intensive. It was our privilege to catch up with her to talk about her upcoming role with Next Generation Ballet’s Nutcracker.

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Photo: Gio Alma

CAUGHT IN THE ACT: How was your first experience dancing Sugar Plum Fairy? What did it mean to you as a dancer to finally have arrived in this prestigious role? What does it mean to you at this point in your career?

PATRICIA DELGADO: I remember the first year I had the opportunity to perform as the Sugar Plum Fairy with the Miami City Ballet. I was extremely excited but way too nervous! I was young! I was still in the corps de ballet and loved getting to perform in snow and flowers every single show and every now and then get to do lead Marzipan. I couldn’t believe I would get to dance the grand pas de deux. It was very emotional for me because I had grown up doing the children’s roles in Miami City Ballet’s The Nutcracker, and all of the ballerinas I idolized so much had mesmerized me in this role for so many years. It was such a big deal for me. I remember working very hard and rehearsing a lot and still feeling very nervous! I have to say that even though my first show felt like a huge emotional achievement, it wasn’t my best performance at all.

I remember my partner and I were both new in the role, and we were very shaky. Now, looking back … I was just very young and inexperienced. However, what reassured me and helped me to stay calm and happy was knowing that I would hopefully get to work on it every single year since it is such a tradition. Every year when Nutcracker season strolls around, I’m excited to see how far I have come from the year before. I take note of how I learn artistically to interpret the music on a deeper level or approach the technical elements with more finesse and confidence. The other perk of dancing The Sugar Plum every year is trying the pas de deux with so many different Cavaliers. Each one I have been fortunate enough to dance with has shown me the pas de deux from a uniquely different perspective, and I love exploring that!

This year, I’m beyond words excited to get a chance to dance with principal dancer from the New York City Ballet, Gonzalo Garcia*, for the first time. He has been a dream partner of mine for a long time and to get this opportunity means the world to me. When I watch him dance, he makes me want to work harder and harder at being a better dancer and getting to feel his passion on stage will be such a treat! He is such a giving partner. I feel incredibly fortunate.

Watch Patricia dance in this new music video for the National’s “Dark Side of the Gym” with Justin Peck, who also directed the video:

CITA: What do you bring to the interpretation of the Balanchine choreography that you feel like is “yours”?

PD: What I love about this version is how incredibly musical it is and how beautifully the steps show off the music. Balanchine is just the absolute best! I really get lost in the mystery and luscious adagio quality of the pas de deux. What I just completely adore about the variation is how sweet it is. I imagine all of the little angels around me having conversations with me and sharing little secrets with me that just fill my heart with flutters of joy.

CITA: Will you talk a little about what you are looking forward to most about working alongside the Next Generation Ballet pre-professional company? Philip gushed about what great examples of professional dancers you all are, and he mentioned that you would all be great with the younger dancers.

PD: I’m so excited to be dancing alongside the Next Generation dancers because this past summer, after teaching for a week at the summer intensive, I was just blown away by the talent, work ethic, dedication and the positivity of all the students. I left Tampa rejuvenated and completely inspired by so many young amazing dancers. They fueled me! To share the stage with them is an honor, and I cannot wait to get the chance to see them light up on stage.

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Patricia working with a student during Next Generation Ballet’s 2017 Summer Intensive.

CITA: What are you eager to see, do (or eat) during your stay in Tampa? You know we have the best café con leche and Cuban sandwiches (sorry, Patricia!, we know Miami is strong in these regards).

PD: Tampa is such a booming city. I love the location of the Straz Center along the river and in such a developing part of downtown. I can’t wait to go to Ulele, one of my favorite restaurants. Also, it’s my first winter living in NYC after living my whole life in Miami, so I’m very much looking forward to the sun and the warmth which I miss this time of year! I’m also looking forward to spending time with Philip and the amazing teachers at Next Generation Ballet.

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Patricia teaching during Next Generation Ballet’s 2017 Summer Intensive.

Patricia Delgado performs Sugar Plum Fairy during the Thursday night performance, and Sara Mearns performs Friday and Saturday nights.

Meet Patricia in this video with her sister, Jeanette, as they talk about performing with MCB:

 

*Due to a recent injury, Gozalo Garcia will not be appearing in Nutcracker. However, we are excited to announce that Miami City Ballet principal Renan Cerdeiro will perform with Patricia Delgado as the Cavalier.

EXCLUSIVE: Ballet Star Sara Mearns Talks Sugar Plum Fairy and Dancing in Nutcracker at The Straz

New York City Ballet principal dancer Sara Mearns recently starred in The Red Shoes on Broadway and in George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker® for NYCB. Beloved by young ballerinas and a superstar onstage, Mearns is also a face of Guerlain perfume and Cole Haan. She works with many dance organizations to inspire people to love classical ballet as well as prevent injuries. It was our privilege to catch up with her to talk about her upcoming role with Next Generation Ballet’s Nutcracker.

CAUGHT IN THE ACT: Describe your first experiencing dancing Sugar Plum Fairy … what did it mean to you as a dancer to finally have arrived at this prestigious role? What does it mean to you at this point in your career?

SARA MEARNS: I remember the first time I performed Sugar Plum. I danced it with Stephen Hanna who was already a principal, and I was a soloist at the time. Fortunately, I had done some pretty big roles like Swan Lake, Faust, and Western Symphony to name a few. I sort of had a sense of what it would feel like out there, and I don’t remember being nervous at all. Stephen took great care of me. That was in 2006. Since then, I have had my shares of ups and downs in my career and particularly with Nutcracker. Personally, the holidays are a strange time for me, and I’m always very exhausted at the end of the year after so much dancing. I had a bout with stage fright last year during Nutcracker that took me away from the stage for a bit, so now I’m back and feel much more confident. I try to go out there and think about all the little kids and aspiring dancers watching. For most people, it’s the first ballet they’ve seen, and I want to make it special for them, so it’s not about me anymore. No matter how good or bad the performance is, the kids are just seeing the ballerina role they want to be some day, and it makes me so happy that I can be that for them.

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CITA: What do you bring to the interpretation of the Balanchine choreography that you feel like is “yours”?

SM: I recently got a compliment/comment on my interpretation of Sugar Plum and it was “unconventional”… and, yes, I will most certainly take that as a compliment! I don’t want to look like anyone else, and that is what’s brilliant about Balanchine’s choreography. Every ballerina can look completely different and have her own take on it, But, the steps and musicality is clearly Balanchine. The pas is so perfect that I could never imagine doing another version. The build-up is just right, and it has the audience on the edge of their seat the whole time. It never gets old hearing the excitement of the audience at the end. It’s so beautiful.

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Sara Mearns photographed at the 1896 studios in Brooklyn. (Photo: Pari Dukovic)

CITA: Will you talk a little about what you are looking forward to most about working alongside the Next Generation Ballet pre-professional company? Philip [Neal, artistic director for NGB and former NYCB principal dancer] gushed about what great examples of professional dancers you all are, and he mentioned that you would all be great with the younger dancers.

SM: As I said before, more than any other time during the year, the Nutcracker is about the children and creating a magical world that they will fall in love with. I love going to suburban schools all over the country and sharing my experiences and my dancing with others. I was in their shoes a long time ago, so I want to give back and show them what they can achieve if they work really hard and stay true to themselves. Can’t wait to meet all the students in Tampa! Also, Philip is a dear friend and a role model of mine. I was so lucky that I got to dance with him in NYCB. I learned so much from him as a colleague, friend, and teacher. He is a true light in the dance world.

CITA: What are you eager to see, do (or eat) during your stay in Tampa? You know we have the best café con leche and Cuban sandwiches.

SM: I’ve never spent much time in Tampa! So, I’m looking forward to eating and seeing all new things. As you know, we don’t get much time there due to our schedules, but we will cherish the very little time that we have. Thank you for having me!

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Sara Mearns and Philip Neal, artistic director of NGB, at Philip’s final performance with NYCB.

Sara performs as Sugar Plum Fairy in the Friday and Saturday night performances of Nutcracker. Thursday night, Patricia Delgado performs Sugar Plum Fairy, and we will profile her in next week’s blog.

To get a glimpse of Sara in action, watch this one-minute clip of her with her partner, Amar Ramasar, who will be dancing with her in NGB’s Nutcracker. Here, they dance Balanchine’s Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet:

Manual Transmission

Dance lineage is a big deal. A very big deal. So, when Next Generation Ballet got a descendant of Jerome Robbins, who was guided by George Balanchine, who was instructed by Marius Petipa, the Straz Center leapt for joy.

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Philip Neal, dance department chair and artistic director of Next Generation Ballet, instructing students during the summer intensive.

Philip Neal, the artistic director for Next Generation Ballet, came to us from New York City Ballet, where he worked as a principal dancer for more than twenty years. When you take into account that his main choreographer and teacher was none other than the Jerome Robbins, you can begin to understand what a tremendous, unparalleled gift we have sitting right here in the Patel Conservatory. (For you non-dance folks, just imagine if we told you we had a rock guitar teacher who learned from Jimi Hendrix. Same.)

While most people recognize Robbins’ work from West Side Story and Fiddler on the Roof, Robbins was first and foremost a ballet choreographer, hailed as the first dance maker to invent a singular, artistic American ballet style. (Robbins’ mentor, Balanchine, was the father of American ballet.) In 1986, Robbins spotted the then-19-year-old Philip Neal in Philip’s very first rehearsal with NYCB. Impressed, Robbins called Philip to solo in “Jerry’s” latest ballet.

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In addition to many ballets, Jerome Robbins choreographed Broadway productions including On the Town, Peter Pan, The King And I, West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof and more.

“For the next year,” says Philip, “I worked with Jerry on that ballet. He called me to understudy for every one of his ballets. Jerry sourced from Balanchine, who sourced from Petipa. Today, when I choreograph for Next Generation Ballet, I find myself teaching and thinking ‘I stole these steps from Balanchine’ or when I teach my students to use their full arms and say ‘paint your sky with a paintbrush’ they don’t know that I’m saying to them exactly what Jerry said to me.”

Dance is passed down manually, almost always without notes or a written record. The art transmits from teacher to student through class and rehearsal, each student taking the master’s work and either passing it to the next generation in pure form or building on the tradition by incorporating his or her own style.

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Maruis Petipa was ballet master and principal choreographer of the Imperial Ballet (precursor of the Kirov/Mariinsky Ballet) from 1871 until 1903.

The root of Philip’s work is Marius Petipa, the “granddaddy of classical ballet,” who was born in France in 1818 and eventually came to fame with Russia’s St. Petersburg Imperial Theatre. Petipa more or less singlehandedly created the school of Russian ballet. Every ballet you see has Petipa’s influence somewhere on it.

In 1904, George Balanchine (neé Georgi Melitonovich Balanchivadze) was born in St. Petersburg. He enrolled in Petipa’s Imperial Ballet school and performed his first work on stage in Petipa’s The Sleeping Beauty in 1915. As Petipa had left France for Russia, so Balanchine left Russia for America. He partnered with Lincoln Kirstein to create a ballet company that would rival the best of Russian and French ballet. Ergo, New York City Ballet. Balanchine dancers included Suzanne Farrell, Maria Tallchief, Arthur Mitchell, and Edward Villella.

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George Balanchine, co-founder of New York City Ballet, (left) and Arthur Mitchell.

“Balanchine adored westerns, the films,” says Philip, who did not study with Balanchine but did see him on occasion during classes or rehearsals. “He loved Americana and captured the essence of New York—to be fast, to break rules, to turn structures on end. It was so American, so beautiful. He edited out Petipa’s pageantry and could do three hours of steps in 25 minutes.”

In 1948, Balanchine received a letter from a dancer he’d worked with on Broadway, a young man of quite some fame named Jerome Robbins. By 1948, Robbins was already a big time star from creating the heroic, titillating wartime ballet Fancy Free which became the Broadway musical On the Town. In almost no time, Robbins’ talent and charisma inspired Balanchine to promote him to associate artistic director of NYCB.

Enter our Philip Neal in 1986, a tall, elegant dancer who trained at NYCB’s school, and the rest is history.

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Philip Neal danced with New York City Ballet for more than 20 years. (Photos: Paul Kolnik)

Except, of course, that dance history never ends. The continuation of this preeminent legacy now germinates in the classes and rehearsals of our very own Next Generation Ballet. In a bold and exciting move, Philip—a repetiteur of both Robbins and Balanchine, which means he has exclusive permission to stage their dances on other companies—decided to bring this legacy to life in this year’s spring program, Masters of Dance, a program that includes Balanchine’s Donizetti Variations, which Philip performed for NYCB, Robbins’ Circus Polka, a whimsical dance for 48 (not a typo) girls from nine to 12 years old. The performance concludes with Petipa’s extraordinary final act of Don Quixote.

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Philip Neal teaching Next Generation Ballet dancers.

For the first time, Tampa audiences can see the direct lineage of this extraordinary ballet heritage offered by a direct descendant of Petipa to the dancers in our resident company.

“I’m serious,” says Philip. “It’s going to be a milestone performance. I’m in total disbelief that we are going to be able to do something like Circus Polka and Donizetti Variations. My colleagues in New York know what is happening down here, and they are paying attention. We’re only going to grow and go on to bigger things. We are building our own legend with this ballet school.”

Masters of Dance: Balanchine and Robbins plus Petipa’s Don Quixote Suite runs May 13 and 14 in Ferguson Hall.

Practice Makes Perfect

Inside Next Generation Ballet’s Nutcracker rehearsal

img_7571Dance rehearsal smells like feet and moist leotards. There’s nothing elegant about it. When the dancers work hard, improvising corrections on-the-fly from choreographers and ballet mistresses, there is a locker-room funk suspended in the air from sweat-dampened dance clothes, breath and many bodies moving in one studio classroom.

So it was the night we caught up with Next Generation Ballet midway through their Nutcracker rehearsal schedule (which started in September) in room 302 of the Patel Conservatory. We sat in on a first run-through of Act II: Land of the Sweets (you’ll know it as the dance-of-the-sugar-plum-fairy part if you’re not familiar with the ballet) where all levels assembled: the adorable tots performing roles of caterpillars, the beginning and intermediate dancers in corps de ballet roles supporting the advanced dancers in solos (you’re in for a treat with the technical skill of the female NGB dancers) and more challenging small group parts (as the quartet of males performing the knee-punishing “Russian Dance”).

Rehearsals highlight the behind-the-scenes grit and grind that comprise a dancer’s life. In rehearsal, we see the dancers fall out of a triple pirouette, spinning to their shins. They slip on their red ribbons, create slapstick traffic jams exiting the stage and grimace as ballet mistress Ivonne Lemus yells corrections over the music, pushing dancers to extend into a higher diagonal in a leap. Artistic Director Philip Neal, decked out in the official NGB Nutcracker t-shirt, bobbed his head in time, barely blinking as he assessed timing, execution, phrasing, and technique during the deceptively organized chaos.

img_7598The excitement of catching a rehearsal at this stage—the moves and sequences are there but not quite mastered to perfection—is witnessing the work it takes to make a dance, with its stories and characters carried on a platform of technical physical challenge, congeal. As patrons of the arts, we’re often privy to the finished product, the flawless execution of art at the point where the dancers make the moves look easy.

Ellie Borick, 16, dances the Snow Queen and Dewdrop. “I love doing these roles. It’s challenging artistically and technically, but I have to get the role right and look beautiful doing it,” she laughs. “I’m excited to see the whole ballet come together. There’s so much color and life. When we finally get to put on our costumes and see each other in costumes, it gets very exciting, and I can’t wait for that.”

Eliot Wallace, 15, performs as one of the Chinese Dancers in the international section. In NGB’s interpretation, they incorporate 7-foot long red ribbons, which they must also twirl in a separate choreography to match their ballet sequences. “At this stage, we are working out not getting the ribbons tangled with each other, to make sure we keep the ribbon moving,” he says. “Right now, we know everything we have to do. But we still have kinks to work out, and we have to add a layer of expression to our performances.”

“Tonight is our first night running through the whole Act II,” says 17-year-old ballerina Amy Wilson. “We’ll be working to make it smoother. Timing is a focus at this point, making sure people know when to go on, how to get off stage.”

The dancers, unflagging in their spirits about fine-tuning an exhausting and demanding full ballet, draw together as a company, often applauding each other for particularly tough sequences (gawd the fouettes and pirouettes), and erupting in amazement at the jaw-dropping tumbling passes by the Acrobats. (We, too, were agape. See video above.)

Luke Guiterrez, 11, takes on several roles throughout the ballet, and you will see him first as Fritz, the little brother, and later as a Soldier and as part of the Polichinelle, the children who scamper around the Mother Matroyshka Dolls, the always delightful life-sized Russian nesting dolls. He is something of a cherished younger cast member and sums up the experience rather well:  “When you have a bunch of practices together and work so hard, when the show ends you wish it would keep going.”

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Left to right: Amy Wilson, Ellie Borick, Luke Guiterrez and Eliot Wallace.

Lizzie Borden Took an Acts

Performing arts adaptations of one of America’s most grisly and haunting murder stories

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Portrait of Lizzie Borden, circa 1889.

The facts are simple.

On Aug. 4, 1892, Andrew and Abby Borden were found dead in their Falls River, Mass., home from multiple hatchet wounds. Police found no sign of a struggle, no convincing murder weapon, no bloody clothes on any possible suspect—even the one tried for the murders, Andrew’s younger daughter Lizzie.

Lizzie’s case stood as the 19th century’s version of the O.J. Simpson trial, feeding the public’s imagination and raising countless speculations about motives, what really happened and a friend’s testimony stating she saw Lizzie burning a “paint-stained” dress three days after the murders. Even though the jury acquitted her, Lizzie Borden galvanized into a horror legend guilty of the crime, spending the rest of her life as a social outcast and ghosting into history as an axe-wielding, Victorian psychopath who continues to provide fertile ground for storytellers of all artistic genres.

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Colleen Cherry plays Lizzie Borden in Jobsite Theater’s rock musical production of LIZZIE (photo: Rob/Harris Productions, Inc.).

Lizzie Borden’s legend, staged at The Straz this month by Jobsite Theater as the killer rock musical LIZZIE, features one of the latest stabs at adapting this gruesome, fascinating episode for the stage. LIZZIE features an all-female “riot-grrrl” band with Lizzie and Co. belting out musical metal as they perform a rock concert version of the events from Lizzie’s point of view. LIZZIE runs in the Jaeb Theater from Oct. 12-Nov. 6.

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Left: The Boston Ballet’s 1972 production of Fall River Legend (photo: King Douglas). Right: American Ballet Theatre’s Fall River Legend, 2007 (photo: Lois Greenfield).

But before this current version, ballet choreographer extraordinaire Agnes deMille took a whack at capturing the complex social and emotional subtext surrounding Lizzie’s life. Her dance version, which ends in a guilty verdict, examined Lizzie’s relationship with the local priest, her complicated feelings toward her father and stepmother and the role of the small-town mindset. DeMille’s invention, premiered by American Ballet Theatre to a cinematic score by Morton Gould in 1954, arrived as an instant classic called Fall River Legend. The piece entered the repertory of other major ballet powerhouses including Dance Theatre of Harlem and Paris Opera Ballet.

The boring real-life outcome of Lizzie’s innocent verdict also provided a problem for another adaptation 11 years later when City Opera of New York transcribed the tale to the optimal form for murdering psychopaths: opera. Jack Beeson’s titular opera was conducted by none other than Maestro Anton Coppola, who later became the inaugural artistic director of the Straz Center’s Opera Tampa. In Beeson’s version, the plot centers around Lizzie’s psychological abuse by her father and stepmother, casting Lizzie as a tragic figure with little choice of escape except by removing the forces of unpleasantness. In short, administering the 81 whacks reported in the jump-rope rhyme. (“Lizzie Borden took an axe/Gave her mother 40 whacks/When she saw what she had done/Gave her father 41.”) To be historically accurate, 19 whacks befell Abby, who was her stepmom, with 11 landing upon Mr. Borden, both numbers that make catchy rhyming next to impossible. As usual, the facts disrupt the dramatic potential. However, Beeson’s sharp-edged psychological interpretation was no hatchet job. The critics and audiences loved the opera, and Maestro Coppola was lauded for his command of the challenging score.

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Elizabeth Montgomery as Lizzie Borden in a scene from the made for TV movie The Legend of Lizzie Borden, 1975.

Television and movies revisit the story, mining the details for new ways to cut and wrap film adaptations that keep audiences titillated by Lizzie’s mysterious and misunderstood personality. Goth lovely Christina Ricci killed the role in Lifetime’s TV movie Lizzie Borden Took an Ax, inspiring a Lifetime mini-series about Lizzie’s life after the trial. In a creepy turn of events, Elizabeth Montgomery (Bewitched) portrayed the Fall River spinster in ABC’s 1975 airing of The Legend of Lizzie Borden. Later, a genealogist discovered Montgomery was Borden’s sixth cousin. Talk in Tinseltown today suggests a new feature film is in the works starring Chloe Sevigny (Boys Don’t Cry, Big Love) with the trying-to-get-past-Twilight superstar Kristen Stewart as Lizzie’s maid, Bridget Sullivan.

Although it’s a bloody mess trying to understand why the public remains so morbidly fascinated with the Borden story on stage and screen, this fact remains: Lizzie performs well with acts.

Okay, Ladies, Now Let’s Get in Formation

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Former Next Generation Ballet Trainees. (Photo: Michelle Revels)

Ballet conjures images of tutus, tights, impossible-looking turns on tips of toes and gravity-defying mid-air leaps. If you’ve never taken a ballet class or had a little ballet beginner, then you may not realize those tricky combinations of flicks, kicks, twists, tippy-toe steps, glides, bends and hops emerge from a seriously old set of schematics precise and infallible enough to impress the most demanding engineer.

And those schematics depend on five simple foot positions.

“The ballet positions not only create a foundation for technique but are crucial for the linking of movement, so ballet appears seamless,” says Philip Neal, Dance Department Chair and Artistic Director of Next Generation Ballet.

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When skill at European court dances (ballet de cour) became so popular in the 1500s, instructors needed a technique. The court dances relied on the dancer being nimble, with the hip rotators turned so the feet shifted from face-forward to out-to-the-side. With feet and toes pointed outward and the hips rotated, dancers had a greater, more controlled, more fluid range of motion. They created, with this simple adjustment of hips and feet, something quite titillating: possibility for moving and moving across floors.

Eventually, a Parisian choreographer, Pierre Beauchamp, codified “turnout” of the hips and the five basic foot positions to improve strength and flexibility in turnout in the 17th century. Beauchamp’s boss, King Louis XIV, appointed Beauchamp and twelve others to set the artistic standards of classical ballet as we know it today. And did they.

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2015 Next Generation Ballet Summer Intensive dancers in class at the Straz Center. (Photo: Stormy Sea Studio)

Thus, ballet begins—not with 5, 6, 7, 8!—but with first, second, third, fourth and fifth. These five basic positions of the feet on the floor relative to the dancer’s body serve as the building blocks for every subsequent step, combination of steps, phrase, leap and combination of leaps and phrases. Next time you’re at a classical ballet, watch: every movement and pose begins and ends in one of these five steps.

Lest these simple-looking positions—feet together, feet apart, feet apart at a different angle, feet together again—belie their difficulty, first let us talk a little about what a dancer is going for in these basic positions. The trick is interior mastery of muscles and groups of muscles, connection with one’s center of gravity, execution of proper alignment and stance in which the pelvis and shoulder girdle must be in line with invisible vertical, horizontal, saggital (left/right) and frontal (front/back) planes. And, she or he must remember to “hold” the body with these particular but unnoticeable-to-the-audience forces:

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So, when you practice these positions in your class or you see dancers “working through the positions” in warm up or catch a glimpse of these building blocks in your next viewing of Swan Lake, know that there is much more than meets the eye. In fact, simply standing in first position using proper technique engages more than 20 muscles: the gluteus medius, gluteus minimus, tensor fascia latae, adductor magnus, adductor longus, adductor brevis, pectineus, adductor gracillis, gluteus maximus, deep six lateral rotators, sartorius, rectus femoris, biceps femorus, quadriceps vastii, spinal extensors and transverse abdominus.

Plus you have to do all this while breathing and keeping a pleasant look on your face.

First position:

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Balls of the feet turned out completely, heels touch. Dancer attempts to create a straight line, or a 180-degree angle. “At barre, we begin with first position to establish turnout in the hips. It’s important not to force turnout from the knee down but rather at the pelvis,” says Neal. (Photo: The Ballet Companion by Eliza Gaynor Minden)

Second position:

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Similar to first, but the heels separate by a length of 1 1/2 times the dancer’s foot. “Second position, a wider open stance, helps prepare stability and strength for jumps and larger scale movement,” says Neal. (Photo: The Ballet Companion by Eliza Gaynor Minden)

Third position:

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Here, one foot is in front with the front foot touching the middle of the back foot. “Third is hardly used anymore, except perhaps in character movement,” says Neal. (Photo: The Ballet Companion by Eliza Gaynor Minden)

 Fourth position:

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Same as third, but feet are apart by a space of the dancer’s foot-length. Neal says, “It’s crucial as a preparation for turning.” (Photo: The Ballet Companion by Eliza Gaynor Minden)

Fifth position:

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Both feet touch with the toes of each foot reaching the heels of the other foot. “Fifth is the most valuable position of all, and the hardest to perfect,” says Neal. (Photo: The Ballet Companion by Eliza Gaynor Minden)

Tip from Neal: “I teach that fifth position should be like a Ziploc bag. Each leg is color-coded like a sandwich bag, one leg is yellow, the other is green. In fifth, a tightly closed position, yellow and blue seal to make green, to seal in the freshness of the position! Think of the legs like crossed beams in a structure providing stability to a building.”

 

In any given classical ballet class worth its salt, instructors take dancers through several series of exercises working the feet, legs and hips through these positions. These building blocks define the placement of the feet on the floor and, eventually, define the placement of the dancer in the studio and on the stage. Proper technique from these five positions makes pushing from the floor for leaps and turns possible, and the extensive vocabulary of ballet begins with learning these five simple—but not easy—steps. To get ballet, you’ve got to get in formation.

Paper + Glue + Satin = Athletic Equipment

You Can Tell A Lot About A Woman By Her Shoes

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Photo by Soho Images.

Ballet, with its emphasis on gracefulness, classical music and tutus, is subject to a bevy of cultural misunderstandings, one of the most glaring is the conception that ballerinas are fragile dancing fairies, or Queen Faeries, depending upon the role. Not so. Just take a look at their only required equipment: the pointe shoe.

Let’s get this straight: Ballerinas are not nymphs, no matter how they appear in all those layers of twittering tulle. They are physical ninjas, gliding along the stage in endless bourres or whipping around silently in such things as Odile’s legendary 32 fouettes for Swan Lake (and then American Ballet Theatre’s Gillian Murphy insanely mixed it up with additional pirouettes, as if it needed to be more challenging?).

Unlike male dancers, who perform in ballet slippers, ballerinas must perform en pointe in a shoe constructed of little more than paper, glue and satin. In this shoe, she will balance all of her body weight on the tips of her toes, mostly between the big and second toes. She will endure bunions and broken nails, blisters and stress fractures, possible osteoarthritis and tendonitis and any number of wonky injuries to the Achilles tendon complex. She will execute a force up to 10 times her body weight on the platform of the shoe. Why? Because pointe shoes create the illusion of floating, of magic, of a lithesome otherworldly spirit who simply cannot remain earthbound, of the impossible being possible. Thus: ballet.

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To be fair, the early ballerinas, the ones emerging in the dance courts of Catherine de Medici and, later, of the impresario of France’s Royal Academy of Dance, Louis XIV, did not wear pointe shoes. In fact, they wore heels. After the French Revolution, the heels disappeared, but it wasn’t until a pivotal moment in 1795 when Charles Didelot invented a “flying machine” with wires to lift dancers to their toes that the first inklings of en pointe emerged. Audiences responded so strongly that choreographers began to incorporate more toe work into their dances until they and the dancers wanted to be uplifted wire-free.

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Marie Taglioni as Flore in Charles Didelot’s ballet Zephire et Flore. Hand colored lithograph, circa 1831.

Then, it happened.

Marie Taglioni, Italian ballerina extraordinaire, danced La Sylphide in 1832. During parts of her solo, through nothing more than the strength of her feet and legs, she lifted herself to the tips of her satin slippers, exhilarating the audience and causing European ballet-philes to receive her with Beatles-esque verve. So beloved was she of the Russians that they reportedly cooked her slippers and ate them with a sauce. Regardless, she changed ballet forever.

At the end of that century, the late 1800s, the “box” (the sturdy square tip) was added to satin slippers, and the basic pointe shoe design was set. Today, there are several tried-and-true makers of pointe shoes, and most of them make every single pair by hand. Yes, by hand. This attention to craftsmanship means that no two pair of pointe shoes are the same, and each set varies depending on the size and strength of the craftsman’s hands and the amount of glue he or she used. Freed’s of London makes more than 250,000 pairs of pointe shoes a year, each of these constructed individually.

When a ballerina receives a new pair of pointe shoes, the shoes are not yet fit for dancing nor do they come with the ribbons attached. Ballerinas must sew on their ribbons themselves to accommodate their ankles and foot shape, and they must “break in” the shoe, which means softening it just enough for dancing but not too much. Dancers can flex the shoe with their hands, slam the box in a door or pound it with a hammer, and scuff up the platform. However, when the shoe becomes too broken in, it is then “dead,” and the ballerina must use a new set of shoes. Some professional ballerinas may even use several pairs of shoes during one night’s performance. Pittsburgh Ballet Theater notes that a professional ballerina can go through 100 pairs of pointe shoes in one season, and their company spends at least $100,000 on pointe shoes per year. That’s astounding, but not as shocking as London’s Royal Ballet, whose pointe shoe budget averages $400,000 per year for around 8,000 pairs of shoes.

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An afternoon pointe class at the Patel Conservatory. Photo by Rob/Harris Productions, Inc.